Oh my goosh! is all I've got to say about Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River in Utah.
If you are looking for long, crazy, narrow red rock canyons, you have come to the right place. I have traveled all over the world spelunking some of the deepest holes, climbed some of the highest mountains, and rafted some of the wildest rivers this planet has to offer, but this red rock smorgessborg of delight ranks right up at the top with the best of them. The best part is that it is right here in the good old U.S.of A.
In September, two buddies, Peter and Big John jumped into my fairly new suburban with me and took a road trip from San Diego to Utah to see what all of the hoopla about these narrow canyons was all about. We were on our way to rendezvous with two other buddies, crazy Ivan and Jeff, who were cruising around the southwest looking for who knows what?
Our destination was known as Buckskin Gulch. In other words, there is no way out for 12 miles. Being fairly new at this end of the sport, we did some reading and purchased some dry bags for packing our stuff in (very good idea). The book said that we could get wet going through some pools of water (a major understatement).
We arrived on a Friday afternoon and had a nice old fashioned dinner of steak and potatoes at a greasy little diner in the middle of nowhere while we waited for our buddies to show. It never ceases to amaze me how sometimes well laid plans actually come together. In the distance, a spec trailing a cloud of dust appeared and morphed into a red Chevy truck with two guys inside grinning from ear to ear. Jeff jumped out and said, "lets get this party started!". I said, "Whoa big fella. Let's start this hiking thing tommorrow morning". They all agreed that this would probably be a good idea as we didn't want anybody wandering off and falling down a big hole.
That night under a slew of dazzling stars, we made a white man's campfire and told a lot of really rotten jokes. We got to laughing so hard that my face muscles started to hurt. Wow, now that is good therapy! About 10:00 P.M. we started to get sleepy when all of a sudden, Big John yells, SNAKE! Sure enough, a huge 5 foot rattle snake slithered underneath his chair, right next to the fire, and then out the other side as if it was his nightly highway. He only gave us a passing glance with a couple flicks of his tongue. We all decided that he was the boss and that we would just all move back to let him go on his happy hunting. You can be sure that that night we all slept in our cars. Rattle snakes in sleeping bags were not a comforting idea.
The next morning, we packed our goods and delivered one vehicle at the proposed exit of our Paria River terminus and then proceeded to drive to the entrance of Buckskin Gulch. We found a dusty little parking lot with two other cars. I have always made it a point to look all around me and make a note of distant peaks so that I could get some bearings on where I am. Way out in the distance, I spotted some not so nice looking clouds and commented to my buddies that rain water can travel long distances and cause flash floods. They all looked at me and said those clouds are over 20 miles away and will not be a problem. Let's roll!
As I looked over my shoulder at those dark monsters, I followed my buddies toward a tiny crack in a rock. We all stepped back and said that's it? We literally had to take off our packs and scoot sideways to enter this canyon. We dropped down one drop off after another and started to enter another world. The noises from the outside world rapidly disappeared and the only thing that we could hear was the sound of our breathing and our footsteps. After about a mile, the walls were still within touching distance on each side of us and the outside light continued to dim. We were going down a canyon with walls towering over 500 feet above us. It was an amazing feeling looking at the red rock swirling in designs that only a master artist could complete. Everywhere you looked was a picture post card.
We came upon several rattle snakes that had fallen down the abyss to their deaths in contorted positions with broken backs and lacerated skin. Around another bend, we came upon a long area of standing water. Big John plunged in and found himself wallowing in mud up to his waist. Oops, I forgot to tell him about the famous quicksand of this area. When the Mormon Calvary discovered this canyon, one of their party of ten died in this same quicksand when his horse plunged in, fell over, and rolled over his young rider. They tried to revive him but he had breathed in too much of the mud. Thankfully, Big John found the bottom of the quicksand and was able to pull his way through it.
About six miles down the canyon the walls opened up and we found a tall sand bar, perfect for making a campsite. More than once, Flash Flood rolled through our minds as we made our way down the narrow canyon to camp. Ah, the luxuries of camp! Take off those wet boots, make a nice supper, and tell great stories with the occasional bad gas being passed. Looking up that night, the skies were clear and the dark outline of the 1,000 foot high walls morphed into the perfect shape of a flying bat. We all felt like we were making a new Batman movie.
Jeff and Ivan pitched a tent and Big John, Peter, and Myself decided to sleep out in our new Bat cave in our sleeping bags. We all drifted off into a deep sleep. Exactly at 4:00 A.M. a big rain drop splattered down on my face. I looked up in horror and thought, Oh No! It began to lightly rain and I dove in the two man tent with Ivan and Jeff. They complained a bit but still let me lay down. Within 5 minutes the light rain turned into a downpour. Looking outside the tent, I could see Peter and Big John trying to hide beneath their parkas but they were not keeping the water from soaking their bags.
I told Ivan and Jeff to get up and that we would need to pack our bags and get out of here immediately if we wanted to escape any flash flooding. Ivan said that he wasn't worried about it and that he would get up to make some coffee and cook some pancakes. The rest of us looked at Ivan as if he was crazy. Someone then suggested that we take a vote as to stay and make breakfast or just bolt. Bolting won and we all rapidly packed up with a few grumbles from Ivan saying we were all crazy. As we headed down the canyon, the rain continued and the canyon floor became muddy and slippery. The harder it started to rain the faster we made our legs go. We realized that we had about 6 miles to go and that we had better start hoofing it if we were going to make it out of there alive. Jeff started to jog with his pack and ended up disappearing up ahead.
At about the five mile point, the canyon narrowed to about 8 feet across. As this area just started to widen again, we could hear a small roar in the dark abyss behind us. Realizing that this was our feared flash flood, we all started to run and came to the conclusion that the canyon was starting to open up and there were some gravel bars on each side. Just as we reached our first gravel bar, the foaming muddy water arrived. At first, it was only about a foot deep and we kept jogging in and through it to cross from gravel bar to gravel bar. All this time, we kept looking for Jeff but hadn't seen him in the last 30 minutes. As the canyon continued to open up we slowed down a bit and looked back. What we saw really shocked us as the flood waters had risen so high that the ground we had just been standing on in the narrow part of the canyon was under about 8 feet of muddy turning water.
Turning back down river, we continued to hoof it back and forth across the muddy water, sometimes up to our waists. After awhile, we spotted Jeff 100 feet up on the side of a cliff face looking like an Anasasi Indian. We yelled to him to come down but he said he was afraid that the water would come all of the way up there. After seeing us successfully working our way down river, Jeff finally decided it was OK to come down and finish out the trip with us.
When we got to Ivan's truck, we all kissed the ground and said that that was some of the most excitement that any of us had been in! We jumped in Ivan's truck and drove about 20 miles to my suburban where we took the proverbial pictures. By then, the skies had cleared up and we all breathed a sigh of relief. As Ivan drove ahead of me, we both looked to our left as we just starting down into a wide wash area to cross.
All of a sudden, a wall of water about 2 feet tall came roaring across the wash and completely inundated the area we were about to cross. We all waited about five minutes when Ivan said that he was going to get across that 50 foot wide muddy mess. Ivan gunned his truck and basically floated across with his rear tires spinning as they gripped the other side. Of course, I couldn't let Peter and Big John down. With a whoop and holler, I hit the gas and my suburban went crashing through the muddy water and with a sigh of relief, we too made it.
We then all drove to Las Vegas and had our vehicles valet parked at the Rio. The attendant looked in horror at our trucks and asked where we had been? We all just smiled and said, "Oh, just out having a little fun with the boys".